Opinion: Tough talk from Biden at APEC won't move Xi Jinping. Here's what will

Human rights and democracy advocates have rightly urged President Biden to use his meeting with Xi Jinping in the Bay Area on Wednesday to address China’s crimes against its Uyghur minority and other acts of repression within the country and around the globe. But we also need to be realistic about what “tough talk” with China can achieve.

If the results of previous dialogues with the Chinese government are any indication, Washington should not have high hopes for talking sense into Beijing. Instead, the U.S. government needs to find ways to apply meaningful pressure to compel action from the regime. That means using the economic power of the United States and its allies to punish China’s use of forced Uyghur labor and other abuses.

The Chinese government has a record of using “dialogues” to mask its fundamental resistance to international pressure. “We have engaged in constructive dialogue and cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner and other countries, and helped advance the reform and development of the global human rights governance system,” China’s then-foreign minister, Qin Gang, said during a United Nations meeting in February. (Qin has since been purged for unknown reasons.) One can find similar platitudes throughout Beijing’s official statements.

The truth is that under this smokescreen of “constructive dialogue,” “win-win cooperation” and other such slogans, Beijing has been carrying out a systematic assault on the U.N. human rights system. The Chinese government wants to rewrite norms and manipulate procedures to minimize scrutiny and accountability for itself and other repressive governments.

The Chinese regime is similarly deceptive on climate change. Despite yet another meeting between U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, last week, China — the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases since 2006 — continues to build new coal-fired power plants, accounting for two-thirds of such facilities planned worldwide. The regime has also been harassing climate activists, cracking down on environmental groups, strangling independent journalism on the topic and silencing the populations that are most vulnerable to climate change.

The United States is not the only democracy attempting to talk Beijing into better behavior. The European Union and China have had a continuing human rights dialogue since 1995, apart from a suspension that ended last year. At this point, it’s crystal clear that three decades of dialogue have not only failed to bring about genuine improvements in China but also undermined the EU’s credibility. A number of human rights groups have called on the EU to end the dialogue.

Biden should heed this history. To persuade China to change course on human rights, the administration must be prepared to deploy U.S. economic power without Beijing’s consent or participation.

The Biden administration should vigorously enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, for example. Passed with bipartisan support in 2021, the law restricts imports of goods made in whole or in part in the Uyghur region, Xinjiang, unless it can be demonstrated that they were not made with forced labor. The law could have a major impact: 20% of the world’s cotton and 45% of its polysilicon, a material used in solar panels, is produced in Xinjiang. But many tainted goods are slipping into the United States as companies learn to obscure their supply chains.

Biden should also impose the strongest possible targeted sanctions on perpetrators of transnational repression and place export controls on companies that have knowingly provided technology, goods or services to facilitate Beijing’s rights violations outside China. Freedom House research shows that the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for the most sophisticated, widespread and thorough campaign of transnational repression in the world, targeting minorities, activists and defectors in other countries.

While U.S. leadership is crucial, these measures are unlikely to be effective if they’re imposed unilaterally. Products of forced labor excluded from the U.S. can simply be diverted to other markets; companies in other countries can support China’s repression beyond its shores. The Biden administration will have to work with other governments to impose effective, multilateral constraints on Beijing’s abuses.

The Biden-Xi California summit may be necessary, but it’s far from sufficient. Biden has to ensure that his human rights exhortations are supported by potent material incentives and a determined coalition of international partners.

Yaqiu Wang is Freedom House’s research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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